Paul Manafort’s man on the inside Meduza profiles Konstantin Kilimnik, the right hand of Donald Trump's former campaign head
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Journalists have widely reported on Paul Manafort’s dealings in Ukraine and his role in the administration of Viktor Yanukovich, the country’s former president who was toppled and forced into exile after 2014 Euromaidan protests. Manafort, until very recently the campaign chairman for Donald Trump, helped to resuscitate Yanukovich’s political image and eventually lead him to win the presidential election in 2010. He also allegedly received cash payments from the Yanukovich administration (Manafort’s lawyer denies this) and routed the money to lobbying firms in Washington in order to influence the US government’s policies regarding Ukraine. On August 19, Trump's team announced that Manafort has resigned from the campaign. Until now almost nothing has been said about the local team that helped Manafort in his work in Ukraine. The top man on this team appears to be Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian national who initially suggested inviting Manafort to Ukraine and who remained by his side throughout the years that Manafort worked in the country.
Kilimnik’s name has barely surfaced in either the Western or Russian media. No picture of him seems to exist, and apparently he has never given an interview. Kilimnik’s name appears in the documents of Pericles Emerging Markets, a private equity fund Manafort started that is now the subject of legal dispute between Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who invested in Pericles.
With the help of several sources, however, Meduza has managed to build a profile of the man who served as Manafort’s top aide and helped him broker political deals in Ukraine and other countries. Most of the sources for this story declined to reveal their names publicly. (It is not uncommon for people in politics in Russia to insist on anonymity when speaking to journalists, even when there are no apparent risks involved.)
Konstantin Kilimnik was born in Kirovograd, a regional capital in central Ukraine (the city is now called Kropyvnytskyi). Like many Soviet teenagers, he left his hometown to get a higher education in Moscow. He then landed a job at the Military University for Foreign Languages (known today as the Military University of the Ministry of Defense), teaching Swedish language and literature. However, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the economy tanked, Klimnik started looking for new job opportunities, and he eventually ended up at the Russian office of the International Republican Institute.
Established in 1983, the IRI officially states that its core mission is “to encourage democracy in places where it is absent.” Throughout its history, however, the organization (which US Senator John McCain has chaired for the past 23 years) has attracted enormous controversy. In 2004, for instance, IRI was linked to a coup in Haiti. It also provided “campaign and communications training” to activists in Poland, and reportedly helped organize and finance anti-government groups in Arab countries ahead of the “Arab Spring.”
According to those who know him, Kilimnik is a short, inconspicuous man, who did well at IRI, eventually becoming the deputy director of the Russian office. A former IRI executive says Kilimnik sometimes disagreed with his American supervisors. In 2004, for example, IRI decided to support Nikita Belykh, a young liberal politician who was then serving as deputy governor in Russia's Perm region. Kilimnik thought this was a mistake. He considered Belykh to be weak and unpopular. (A year later, Belykh became the leader of the Union of Right Forces, one of Russia's top liberal opposition parties at the time. The party performed well in regional elections, but flopped in the national election and didn’t make it into the State Duma. Belykh eventually resigned and later became the governor of Kirov. In June 2016, he was arrested in Moscow, allegedly for accepting bribes, and he's now in jail awaiting trial.)
After a long absence, Kilimnik first returned home to Ukraine in 2004, during the so-called “Orange Revolution.” It is now widely believed in Russia that the West (and particularly the United States) financed the protests in Kiev that eventually resulted in the annulation of a run-off vote in Ukraine's presidential election (and in Yanukovich’s loss).
According to a report by Russian Forbes, however, it wasn't the Americans so much as the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky who was responsible for bankrolling the Orange Revolution. (Berezovsky reportedly invested $70 million in the cause.) Traveling to Ukraine as an IRI employee, Kilimnik was charged with inflating perceptions of Western participation, aiming to bolster US soft power by encouraging illusions about US support. According to a source close to Kilimnik, he was heavily involved in the campaign of Viktor Yushchenko—Yanukovich’s opponent—he invested enormous efforts in building Yushchenko's alliance with Yulia Tymoshenko, another opposition leader.
According to the source, it was around this time that Yanukovich’s people first reached out to Kilimnik. At some point, it became clear to “the other side” that their candidate wouldn't be able to win Ukraine's presidential race without some help from Western institutions. After the Ukrainian Supreme Court ordered a revote, Kilimnik was contacted by the people with ties to Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and the biggest donor to the Yanukovich campaign. Akhmetov wanted to hire an American political consultant to help his candidate win in the revote, and Kilimnik came up with Paul Manafort’s name. (Presumably, the two had already been acquainted through IRI.)
A source close to Akmetov recalls that he and Manafort held several meetings that lasted for many hours. The American consultant wanted to “feel out” his new clients and understand their values. Manafort firmly declined to help Yanukovich in the revote; he thought there was no chance to change the course of the election in two weeks’ time. Manafort didn't think this defeat meant the end of Yanukovich’s political career, however, and he offered to help win a future election. The parties agreed, and Kilimnik became Manafort’s top aide in Ukraine, where Kilimnik was named the local representation for Davis Manafort company—a consulting and lobbying firm established by Manafort and his colleague Richard Davis in 1995.
According to a former senior official at IRI, the institute fired Kilimnik as soon as it learned of his new affiliation with Paul Manafort and Viktor Yanukovich. The same source says all Manafort’s Russian connections were managed through Oleg Deripaska and his office.
Kilimnik mostly helped Manafort with political analysis in Ukraine. According to Eugeny Kopatko, an analyst who worked with Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, Kilimnik was Manafort’s closest ally, responsible for “all the organizational stuff.” Kopatko called Kilimnik a smart and sociable man with strong opinions and good sense of humor who is capable of “getting the job done,” but Kopatko refused to go into details. “In this profession, a lot of things best remain behind the scenes,” he said.
Manafort and Kilimnik were successful: in less than two years, they were able to reform the structure of the Party of Regions, which eventually won Ukraine's parliamentary elections in 2006 with 32 percent of the votes. As a result, Yanukovich became the prime minister and was able to rebuild his political image. According to a source close to Kilimnik, when it came to the next presidential election in 2010, the Kremlin wasn’t willing to help Yanukovich anymore. All the work was done by Manafort and his team. Again, they were successful, and Yanukovich, who was considered all but a political corpse six years earlier, became the new president of Ukraine in February 2010.
Meanwhile, according to a source close to Kilimnik, Manafort tried to work with several Russian pro-government politicians, too. However, that didn’t work out as well: while the Russians paid for his advice, they largely ignored it, and he never managed to establish any working relationships.
Abbas Gallyamov, who in the late 2000s worked in the administration of Vladimir Putin (then serving as Dmitry Medvedev's prime minister), doesn’t believe the stories about Manafort working with pro-Kremlin politicians. “Considering the level of anti-Americanism in Russia, it would have been too risky, despite Manafort’s work with Yanukovich,” he said.
Another source close to Kilimnik also alleges that Manafort and his aides worked all across the former Soviet Union. In fact, Kilimnik proved so capable in organizing the ground work that Manafort dispatched him to supervise and consult clients in places as far as Europe and Africa.
After Yanukovich became president, his relationship with Manafort started to erode, according to a source close to Kilimnik. Now other people had Yanukovich’s ear, and despite the fact that Manafort organized another successful campaign for the Party of Regions, the president didn’t pay as much attention to his American advisor as before. For example, according to the source, Manafort and Kilimnik firmly opposed the criminal persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, but Yanukovich went ahead with it, anyway.
After Yanukovich was ousted, Rinat Akhmetov asked Manafort to help resurrect the Party of Regions, which was in ruins after the Euromaidan Revolution. According to Vadim Novinsky, Akhmetov’s partner, Manafort managed another political miracle: the party, now renamed the Opposition Bloc, won 10 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary election. Manafort himself denies any involvement in Ukrainian politics since 2014.
As it is widely known, Paul Manafort was one of the key people in Donald Trump's presidential campaign after March 2016. Konstantin Kilimnik stayed in Ukraine, where he still works as the local representative for the Davis Manafort firm. While rumors persist that Kilimnik has ties to the Russian government and its security agencies, and he sometimes conducts business meetings at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, none of Meduza’s sources confirmed Kilimnik's supposed connections to the Kremlin.
Sources also believe that it is Kilimnik who is responsible for the current negotiations between Rinat Akhmetov and the Ukrainian government: the oligarch allegedly wants to return to the Donbass, his home region, as a governor who can unite the population. So far, however, these talks have proved unsuccessful. According to a source close to Kilimnik, he hasn’t been able to find anyone in Kiev capable of making this happen.
This text was translated from Russian by Aleksandr Gorbachev.